Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, church bell, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings
First LA Phil performance: November 6, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The fascination with Moscow-born Alexander Scriabin at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century stems less from his early, great success as a pianist, mainly playing his own Chopin-influenced short pieces with Chopinesque names – prelude, etude, nocturne, etc. – attractive as that music be. He became notorious as purveyor of the “mystical” creations of the final decade of his short life: his last piano sonatas and two orchestral works, the Poem of Ecstasy heard on the present program and the subsequent Prometheus, Poem of Fire.
The Poem of Ecstasy was written in a villa near Genoa where the composer was hiding out from a censorious Russian society with Tatiana Schlözer, for whom he was in the process of leaving his wife. Scriabin’s self-exile coincided with an invitation to come to New York to present a series of recitals and to perform his early Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. However, the orchestra’s conductor, Vassily Safonov, a friend of the abandoned Mrs. Scriabin, would not countenance Scriabin's presence, or his music. He refused to conduct the concerto and what would have been the world premiere of the recently completed Poem of Ecstasy.
With warnings from an old friend, the conductor Modest Altschuler, that serious problems lay ahead – the Russian writer Maxim Gorky and a woman not his wife recently had been run out of New York for similar “moral offenses” – Scriabin and Tatiana returned to Europe. The Poem finally made it to New York two years later, when it was presented by Altschuler and the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York. The reviews were scathing.
A program note for a concert of Scriabin’s music given in Moscow in March of 1909, offers a view of the piece that is probably Scriabin’s own (we can’t blame anyone else) – and a small taste of what “theosophy” is about:
“Poem of Ecstasy is the joy of liberated action. The Cosmos, i.e., Spirit, is eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play with Worlds. The Creative Spirit, i.e., the Universe at Play, is not conscious of the absoluteness of its creativeness, having subordinated itself to a Finality and made creativity a means toward an end. The stronger the pulse-beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that is consubstantial with creativity, immanent within itself, and that its life is a play. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall then arrive.”
To go much further in describing this gloriously over-the-top, swooning piece of musical mysticism would be to bring it down to earth, the last thing its composer would have wanted.
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.